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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
A North Korean deputy director-level official returned to work at the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong on Monday morning, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) confirmed on Monday.
“The official deputizing the director, Kim Kwang Song, is working at the liaison office this morning,” an official who wished to remain anonymous told media.
Between nine and ten North Korean personnel arrived for work at the liaison office on Monday, they added, bringing the number of staff back to normal.
Jon Jong Su, who serves as vice-chairman of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), serves as counterpart to Vice Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung in the capacity of the liaison office director.
It is not clear when he will return to the facility.
Deputy director Kim and his CPRC colleague Hwang Chung Song were previously stationed at the office on alternate weeks.
Seoul previously told media in mid-March that neither had been present at the liaison office for two weeks, adding that they had been unable to confirm the reason for their absence.
Speaking at a special news conference on March 22, the South Korean vice unification minister also said Pyongyang had since early that month been sending a “temporary” deputy director in their stead.
Chun has, meanwhile, been traveling to the inter-Korean joint liaison office every Friday for director-level meetings with deputies Hwang or Kim should Jon not be available.
Director-level meetings, which the two Koreas previously agreed to hold every week, have not been held for since February 22 — a freeze in dialogue which began around the same time as a no-deal DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi.
National holidays in the two Koreas previously prevented meetings from taking place for the first two weeks of March, with the South having marked the 100th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement on March 1 and the North marking International Women’s Day on March 8.
This coming Friday, too, is a public holiday in the North and, as a result, it remains unclear if a director-level meeting will be held this week.
The South Korean government is yet to give an official reason for North Korea’s sudden withdrawal from the liaison office last month, reported at the time to have taken place “in accordance with the direction of the superior authority.”
Last Monday saw four or five North Korean personnel return to the office, however, to work “as usual” three days after the abrupt pullout of staff.
MOU deputy spokesperson Eugene Lee told press during a regular briefing on Friday that between eight or nine North Korean staff were at work at the liaison office that day, adding that the deputy director was absent.
Communications channels and working-level contacts were being held “normally,” Lee said.
The two Koreas have made a total of 489 contacts and meetings at the joint liaison office since its opening last September, the spokesperson added.
But despite signs of a return to business-as-usual at the joint liaison office this week, inter-Korean relations remain at an impasse in the wake of February’s failed summit in Hanoi.
Asked on Monday whether the South planned to hold talks with the North ahead of the April 11 first session of the DPRK’s 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), MOU spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun said no meetings were planned.
“We will flesh out the plan taking into consideration the situation,” he said.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Monday, too, confirmed that Pyongyang is yet to “officially” respond to a March 18 proposal for general-level military talks.
The ROK military on Monday began “basic excavation work” on the southern part of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in preparation for joint recovery operations with the North, deputy spokesperson Roh Jae-cheon told a press briefing.
The two Koreas previously agreed to push ahead with joint remains recovery operations at a pilot site between April 1 and October 31 this year in a comprehensive military agreement signed last September.
But the two earlier in the year missed the deadline for the composition of the joint remains recovery team, which both sides had agreed to finish by the end of February.
The ROK military has been preparing to begin pilot joint remains recovery project “immediately” and “within the shortest period of time” when North Korea responds, Roh said.
Seoul plans to push ahead with landmine removal in the area from Monday, following a two-month mine sweeping operation conducted between October and November last year.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: MOU